How Not to Do Apologetics

February 27, 2015

About four years ago I wrote a post showing evidence that Joseph Smith married additional wives without the knowledge or consent of his legal wife, Emma. You can read the post here:

Secret Wives

The evidence is quite clear, and it’s also clear that Emily Partridge spent the night in bed with Joseph Smith on their wedding night, and when asked, she confirmed under oath that she had “carnal intercourse” with Smith. Their wedding night was spent in the home of Benjamin Johnson, who confirmed that they occupied the same room and bed.

That would seem fairly straightforward: a man and woman who have just been married and retire to the bedroom are likely to have sexual relations. It strains credulity to believe that they would have gone to the bedroom, closed the door, and spent the night playing cards.

Apparently, it’s not that clear to some people, as I received the following comment this evening. I’m not sure why the comment came four years after the post, but here it is:

Emily Partridge was sufficiently uninformed that she thought Mrs. Durfee’s original questions in 1842 regarding spiritual wifery were germane to Joseph wanting to get it on with her as per Emily’s interpretation of the conversation he tried to have with her and the letter he tried to pass to her.

Lucy Walker’s refusal to testify regarding whether she was intimate with Joseph is telling. This same manner of refusal occurred with Malissa Lott with respect to her own family (who would have loved to know she was Joseph’s factual bedded wife). Malissa always refused to confirm or deny.

I grant that we have Joseph spending the evening in the same room as women who would later be known as his plural wives, per the attestation of Benjamin Johnson. But Benjamin wasn’t watching through the knothole to confirm sexual intercourse. He was merely presuming what activity was occurring.

It all boils down to the one admission from Emily, where she responded “Yes sir.” when asked if she had engaged in carnal intercourse with Joseph Smith. But recall that this Emily had been the wife of Brigham Young, had lived through the culture wars of the 1870s and later, when her people were being put in jail for polygamy, when women were going on the underground with fake identities to avoid being forced to testify against husbands and fathers.

Had Emily not replied “Yes sir.” to that question, she believed that the temple lot of prophesy would be awarded to Joseph’s sons and their Church and therefore forever made unavailable to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Besides this, Emily was by then 70 years old, and knew her way around the English language. Carnal refers to meat. Intercourse refers to commerce or trade (ever visited Intercourse, PA?). Therefore “carnal intercourse” would also be a legitimate description of passing Joseph a platter of turkey or chicken or mutton or beef at a meal, an activity the young Emily had almost certainly engaged in.

As I recall the testimony, Emily was really testy after her “Yes sir.” Which I would be too, if I had technically told the truth but actually implied a falsehood.

I would respond to this point by point, but it just doesn’t merit it. I’m sure my commenter is sincere, but anyone who argues that “carnal intercourse” refers to the commercial exchange of meat is not to be taken seriously. If you have to do such violence to language and logic to support your belief, it’s quite likely your belief is erroneous.

Honestly, that is perhaps the worst apologetic argument for polygamy that I have ever read. And that’s saying something.

For what it’s worth, she apparently has a web site dedicated to proving that Joseph Smith did not have sex with those women.


A Faithful Joseph


Open the Books

February 27, 2015

As most of my readers know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently put out a series of essays discussing controversial or difficult historical or doctrinal issues.

Church Provides Context for Recent Media Coverage on Gospel Topics Pages

I have written previously that I found the essays less than “accurate and transparent,” as Jeffrey Holland insisted they are, “within the framework of faith.” Several faithful Latter-day Saints (and even a few non-LDS) I know have responded by saying that it isn’t the church’s responsibility to teach an exhaustive history and deep study of doctrinal matters, so it’s too much to ask for accuracy and transparency.

For a lot critics, the LDS church will never do enough until they air all their dirty laundry and explain it. And in my view, whoever wrote the essays felt they had given as much information as they could to maintain that framework of faith.

Initially, I thought it was pretty obvious the church has been teaching history and doctrine for 185 years, so it isn’t out of bounds to ask that what they teach be accurate and complete. When you’re not completely open, it looks like you’re hiding something, and that never ends well. After all, it was the desire for secrecy and control of the message that led to the Hofmann bombings in the 1980s. But then I recognized that the church focuses on gospel principles and behaviors that are intended to lead people to Christ, so why get sidetracked wading through the depths of these things?

I think I finally have a solution. Open all the church historical archives to researchers in the way that libraries have long opened their “special collections” to academics and others, so long as those accessing the documents and books respect the terms of use (not removing things, wearing gloves where appropriate, and so on) and that confidential information about living people is not compromised. Maybe it really isn’t the church’s responsibility to dig through the records and try to approach “the whole truth,” whatever that might mean. Let someone else do it.

But, you might say, wouldn’t that just open the church to attacks from secular and religious critics? Yes, it would, obviously, but then it’s not as if the church hasn’t been attacked by groups using information that is already in the public domain. Maybe I’m being naive, but I can’t imagine there’s all that much information in the archives that is any more embarrassing than that which is already known publicly. By opening the archives–even the First Presidency’s alleged “vault”–any sensationalistic attacks would be tempered by accurate information and context from academic authors and faithful church members.

In short, it makes sense for the church to focus on its core mission of inviting all to come unto Christ and leave the blips and flecks of history to the historians. Surely, something would arise on occasion that the church would feel it needed to respond to, just as it has with the recent essays, but historical and doctrinal oddities would be kept in proper perspective. I suspect most members would take any “shocking” revelations in stride, as they have other issues. No longer could any church members say that the church had “lied” to them or hidden things, and critics could no longer accuse the church of covering things up. (For the record, I am pretty sure I have never said the church has lied or covered anything up. If I ever did say something like that, it was probably in a moment of frustration.)

I’m a realist and don’t expect the church to do anything like this. Most image-conscious organizations feel the need to control the message, so they guard “proprietary” information carefully. But the church might follow the example of Tesla Motors, which last year released its electric motor and battery storage patents to the public in hopes of furthering the adoption of its technologies by other people, even competitors. Tesla is betting that whatever damage competitors might do with this information is outweighed by the good of putting the information out in the light of day.

It’s a nice thought, anyway.


Ask Me Anything

February 27, 2015

A friend asked if I would do a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” so I agreed to do it on Wednesday, March 4 at 9 pm Eastern (8 Central, 7 Mountain, 6 Pacific). I’ve never done anything like this before, but I think it will be fun. I was asked to provide a short biography:

I am an author and blogger. My blog, Runtu’s Rincón, has won several awards for LDS commentary and humor, as well as attracting a small group of Mormon stalkers, who consider me “the most dangerous kind of anti-Mormon there is,” though I’m not anti-Mormon at all.

I grew up in Southern California, attended BYU, and served an LDS mission in Bolivia. I’ve worked for more than 20 years as a technical writer and editor, and I spent two years working at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City. I don’t have too many juicy stories–a few, though–other than getting lost in the tunnels once and, on finding my way out, tripping over then-prophet Howard W. Hunter’s wheelchair.

I was invited to join an LDS-themed email list back in 1995, and eventually I became a bit of an amateur apologist, posting on a couple of listserv and message boards. In 2005, I took a break from message boards, and in the process had a crisis of faith. I returned to the boards as an experiment, posting with the same style and interests but from an unbelieving perspective. Within a year, I was banned from the FAIR board, and a poster sent an email around to all my friends claiming I was mentally ill and possibly a sexual predator.

Needless to say, I have generated a lot of anger by posting my thoughts about Mormonism. At one point, a commenter said he had a loaded shotgun, and the shells in it had my name on them. I try to have a sense of humor about that kind of thing, but eventually my wife received anonymous emails threatening violence if she didn’t “put a stop” to my writing. Since that time, things have calmed down considerably, probably because I’ve mellowed, in part.

In 2011, I published Heaven Up Here, a sort of blow-by-blow account of my time as a Mormon missionary in Bolivia, which won a Brodie Award for best book-length memoir. I tried to write the book as I experienced things as a young missionary, not as a middle-aged man looking back. I’ve been really happy that the book has been well-received by believers and unbelievers alike. I think it’s just a great story, but then I’m biased.

These days I don’t write as much as I like, as I’m busy with life and my family in Northern Virginia.

http://www.reddit.com/r/exmormon/comments/2xbaix/another_fantastic_rmormon_ama_this_time_with_john/


Chris and Ida

February 24, 2015

My wife tells me it’s a morbid habit, but I sometimes check the obituaries in the Provo newspapers to see if anyone I know has passed on. Probably has something to do with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or perhaps it reflects a longing to stay connected with my past.

This morning I noticed the obituary for Ida Smith, an 83-year-old woman who was the daughter of church Patriarch Joseph Fielding Smith and a proud descendant of Hyrum Smith, brother of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith. After the usual list of survivors and those who preceded her in death comes this:

Idas [sic] most trusted friends in life were Myrna, her neighbor of many years, and Christopher M. Nemelka, both who [sic] were among those who enjoyed Idas [sic] last moments of this Lone and Dreary World.

It was Idas [sic] wish to let the world know, that after a lifelong search for happiness and real truth, she found solace and fulfillment in the Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Ida wanted all of her friends and family members to know about this marvelous find. Ida desired that anyone interested in her life read Joseph Smiths [sic] Inspired Translation of the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 29, in regards to the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. Some of Ida Smiths [sic] last words were, Its [sic] a marvelous work and a wonder!

What is this “Marvelous Work and a Wonder” of which she speaks, this marvelous find, the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon? And what in this wonder brought her solace and fulfillment? One is tempted to believe that perhaps the wonder involves a prohibition of apostrophes, but then that would be too snarky.

I read about Ida’s journey of faith a few years ago in the Salt Lake City Weekly newspaper. (Full disclosure: I did an interview with City Weekly a couple of years ago, but I can’t see how that would relate to this post.) In 2007 Ida’s cousin told her that, as prophesied for many years, the “sealed portion of the Book of Mormon” had been translated and published. Ida wrote that, upon hearing this, “I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning.” The description in City Weekly is reminiscent of Parley Pratt’s reaction to receiving a copy of the Book of Mormon in 1830:

She devoured it over six weeks, in the process emptying two boxes of tissues and several red ballpoint pens as she wept and underlined page after page of scripture. The voice of the Mormon angel Moroni “was unmistakable,” she later wrote. By the time she had finished the book, “my entire worldview had been forever changed.” It revealed to her what she had suspected since her youth: that the LDS Church was fallible and unnecessary, and that its prophets since Joseph Smith had been in name only.

It’s always interesting to me what resonates with people. I am moved to tears sometimes by George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, and William Butler Yeats, and yet other people I know find them dull and uninspiring. One of my favorite books is Wright Morris’s The Deep Sleep, but I have loaned my copy to friends who have returned it bewildered as to why I love it. So it is with matters of the spirit. I love the language and content of the King James Bible, while others find its Jacobean prose daunting and inaccessible. In the same way, the prose that changed Ida Smith’s life forever is to me as tedious as one might expect a plagiarism of the Book of Mormon could be. To give you an idea of what it’s like, here’s a bit of Nemelka’s echo of 2 Nephi 2:

39 And Jehovah responded to the words of Lucifer, saying: And how dost thou suppose that we learn about this pain and sorrow of which the Father hath spoken if we do not first experience it? And how dost thou suppose that we comprehend the happiness and joy of eternity if we do not know what causeth them?
40 Behold, thou knowest that one of the eternal laws stateth that there is an opposite to all things. If this were not the case, then we could not know anything. For if there was no dark, how could we comprehend the light? And if there was no bad, how could we comprehend good? And if there is no pain and sorrow, how can we understand what joy and happiness are?
41 And these things are according to our feelings. But even so if there were not cold, how could we know warmth.[sic] Yea, even if there were no rocks, then there would be no earth, which is softer than a rock, yet made up of the same elements. (The Sealed Portion—The Final Testament of Jesus Christ 5:39–41.)
The PDF version of the book is 668 pages of this kind of stuff. It’s definitely not my cup of herbal tea. Maybe, as some have suggested, I’m just missing the forest for the trees.

But I’m not going to criticize Ms. Smith for her taste in literature. For whatever reason, Nemelka’s book touched her in a very deep way, and she went all in as a follower. “I was prepared to give up everything for the truth,” she said. “I was looking for the truth all my life. And I wasn’t afraid.” According to the article, several friends and family members, “all, according to Nemelka’s blog, senior and well-connected figures in the LDS Church, … cut themselves off” from her. She gave Nemelka her burial plot in the Smith family portion of the Salt Lake City cemetery, where he had a tombstone erected “that proclaimed him as the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith, along with boasting two trademarked Websites inscribed in bright blue at the base of the plinth, which promote his work.”

The plot was not all she gave him. Nemelka is the executor of her will and her estate. Ida set up a trust, he says, called The Marvelous Work and Wonder Trust, to which she signed over all her assets. Others, he says, have also signed over their wills to Nemelka’s “work.” His message, he continues, “has freed” many people up. “It has given them a whole different view of life, and knowledge.”

Many of her friends and family tried to dissuade her from following Nemelka. Apostle Jeffrey Holland told her, “This guy is a wacko. He’s just not in touch with reality. … If we really believe there’s an order and a priesthood in the church, it’s gonna come to the president of the church.” Former Senator Robert Bennett wrote to her, “I am convinced, beyond any reasonable doubt, that [Nemelka’s works] are forgeries.” But Ida remained steadfast in her faith, no matter the cost, and she remained faithful to the end. And she’s not the only one. According to the 2011 article, Nemelka has attracted some 80 adherents. If you’re interested, you can read their testimonies here.

Who is this Christopher Nemelka, and how has he managed to convince people to follow him?

The official story is that, while working as a security guard in the Salt Lake Temple in the 1980s, Nemelka had a visionary experience.

Already disillusioned with the church, he ventured into the Temple’s upper room where the Twelve Apostles meet. Confronted with its opulence, he “wept bitterly.” Shortly afterward, a “tremendously bright light began to fill the room.” Not only did Nemelka see the personage of his late grandfather, but Joseph Smith and the gold plates to boot. His mission, he learned, was to “commence” the translation of the sealed portion, but only under the position and authority of Smith. The preamble ends with a rumble of stalwart righteousness: “Though I will endure many persecutions and trials, I will never deny that I have experienced that which I have described above, and if any man mock me or that to which I have testified, I will witness against him at the judgement bar of God … I solemnly testify.”

The sealed portion appears to have been published initially sometime in the early 1990s. By this time Nemelka had been through 2 marriages that had ended in divorce and had served time for abducting his son as a noncustodial parent. But there is some disagreement about Nemelka’s reasons for writing the book. In a 2007 interview, he appears to have decided to act the part of “pious fraud,” or someone who uses deception for godly ends. Some have argued that Joseph Smith was such a pious fraud, and it may have seemed natural for Nemelka to follow in his footsteps:

I set about in my own mischievous and arrogant way, of which I’m not proud of now, to prove that a person could actually write scripture and present it to people who were looking for certain scripture. I was playing on the belief that LDS people have that one day the gold plates would be returned and the sealed portion would be translated. Basically, I set about to write a fictitious version of the sealed portion as I thought Joseph Smith would have written it had he continued to perpetuate his translation of the gold plates. Much to the chagrin of the LDS church and others, what I wrote was indeed well versed and quite appropriate for the scripture I was trying to portray. Anybody who reads it would just be totally amazed. … My true intent was to somehow perpetuate a religion that would be based on true Christian principals [sic] of Christ-like love. Where I made my greatest mistake, for which I’m now extremely sorry for, is that I used deception to perpetuate what I proposed as the truth, assuming at the time that Joseph Smith had done the same thing.

In a letter to one of his wives, Nemelka wrote:

When I deal with people, I am amazed at the ignorance and stupidity of most. People are so easily manipulated and deceived. Knowing this has made me a near master of manipulation. I try only to use this art, however, to help people. Sometimes the things I do seem terrible at the time, but usually the manipulation works to accomplish that which I intended.

At other points, Nemelka has been more direct in explaining his motives: “Yeah that’s, that’s all bullshit. All the revelations are bullshit, of course. I made ‘em up.”

In the early 1990s, Nemelka took his book to the Mormon fundamentalist community, where it was a big hit. Nemelka soon set himself up in a polygamous arrangement, but eventually he admitted to the fundamentalists that he had written the “scripture” himself, angering them such that he fled and adopted a pseudonym:

Yes, Christopher Stohl was an alias that I used after I ran away from religious persecution. I didn’t want anybody to know Chris Nemelka. See, when I did that thing with the fundamentalist group, there were people who wanted to kill me. They were so mad. When I came out and told these other polygamists, fundamentalist guys, that I had really written the sealed portion, that I had done it just to show people that it could be done—they were very upset.

He also ended his polygamous relationships. One wife relates, “He sat us all down and said he didn’t believe in polygamy, but [said], ‘What man wouldn’t want to have sex with more than one wife?”

At this point, one would expect Nemelka to give up his religious enterprise, but not so. In 2000, Nemelka met a woman named Christine Marie, who told him she had seen him in a dream. Seemingly borrowing from the Joseph Smith playbook, Nemelka reportedly told her “he had been called to translate the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. He almost failed the first time because of his pride, so God took his calling away for a while.” Nemelka made her feel like she had been chosen to receive this new revelation, that, in her words, “God sent me that dream about him because I had been called to help him. He knew I was one of the elect the minute he looked into my eyes.”

Even after Nemelka was jailed for violating a restrictive order, Marie stuck with him, and he sent her revelations from his jail cell. Nemelka denies having told her he was a prophet or called of God:

Never did he try to persuade Marie that he was a prophet of God, translating the sealed portion, he said. Never did he once ask or press Marie for money. It was Marie who projected a divine image onto him, convincing herself of his status as a prophet and man of God, he said. He ran with it and played on it, he admits. For that, he is sorry. And any money she gave him was money she volunteered, almost forced on him. He accepted it only after she told him her business was thriving and her children were being provided for.

“What I did do was I deceived her religiously. I played with her religious beliefs and mind, which I do not think a person should do,” Nemelka said.

Nemelka’s deception led to her financially supporting him, and she ended up forcing on him somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000. According to her friends, “Marie sold all her furniture and goods to move into a dumpy hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, where she lived almost like a homeless person, among near-homeless people.” Yet Nemelka insists that he never led her on and never asked for money:

My whole purpose was for good. Christine knew that—knew that with all her heart. That’s why she said, ‘I’m going to finance you.’ She’s the one who brought it up. She’s the one who said I don’t want you to work. I wrote it under the inspiration and guise of being a prophet of God. That’s what she wanted me to be.

Indeed, he took pains to make sure that money she spent on him would not be connected back to him.

You have been quite spectacular and trustworthy in your timely payments to my Visa, which covers my child support. By using the Visa method, all transactions will be kept virtually out of my hands and name. So the world will have no cause against me if something happens to you, or if the media, which I am sure will one day be investigating, takes it upon itself to accuse me, as they did Joseph [Smith], of taking advantage of religious contributions for my own gain.

At this point, one could hardly be blamed for wondering if Nemelka himself is clear about his own motivations. Is it for money? Faith? Benefiting humanity? One of his ex-wives says, “There are so many angles that he takes. One minute he claims he’s an atheist, the next he’s a prophet of God.” But for his supporters, the motivation is unimportant. In every sacred text there is something more there than just the tomes.

I’m  less interested in Nemelka himself than in the reasons people adhere to such folks. I readily admit I don’t get the attraction to Christopher Nemelka; to me he seems like a low-rent, wannabe Joseph Smith. But something pulled Ida in, even after she knew about all the sordid details of his past (for some reason, I am reminded of Boyd K. Packer’s statement, “President William E. Berrett has told us how grateful he is that a testimony that the past leaders of the Church were prophets of God was firmly fixed in his mind before he was exposed to some of the so-called facts that historians have put in their published writings”). Similarly, Ida had a firm belief in Nemelka long before she learned about the jail time, the admissions of fraud, and so on. Why would she still believe? Was it the Spirit of God? Was it an unconscious desire to restore her family’s tarnished glory in the LDS church? Was it just that Nemelka’s stuff dovetailed nicely with what she already believed? I have no idea.

In the end, it doesn’t matter the reason. Religious attraction is a matter of individual desire, experience, and preference, and people like Ida are attracted to someone like Chris Nemelka, whereas others wouldn’t cross the street for him. I don’t know if these religious entrepreneurs specifically target certain kinds of people, or they just do what comes naturally in the hopes that the Idas of the world will appear.

Most people–and most Latter-day Saints–would dismiss Nemelka as an obvious fake, but Ida and others believe he has been called to usher in the last days. His website gives us a hint of when the end may come:

Plan to attend the next Marvelous Work and a Wonder® Annual Symposium, June 16th 2015 and every June 16th through 2144 with Wednesday June 16th 2145 being the ultimate culmination of all previous symposiums.

As far as I can tell, Nemelka will be around 183 then.

Maybe Ida will be there in spirit.

 

 

 


A Cumulative, Convincing Case for the Book of Mormon?

February 23, 2015

I notice my friend Dan Peterson has a new article in the Deseret News:

Defending the Faith: Creating a convincing, cumulative case for the Book of Mormon

I should say I have no interest in bashing Dr. Peterson, and I hope people here can talk about substantive issues rather than personalities. For the record, I like Dan Peterson and have for a long time. I understand why he rubs people the wrong way, and I’ll admit sometimes he rubs me the wrong way. But then I rub a lot of people the wrong way (just ask some of my stalkers–err, regular commenters). And I don’t expect a response from Dan, who has said he doesn’t “care for” the environment of my blog, by which I suspect he means my liberal (read: almost nonexistent) comment moderation policies.

Just a few things from his article caught my attention. First, he says, “I’m often confronted with the demand that I prove the Book of Mormon true.” Maybe he does get such demands, but most people I know, myself included, aren’t looking for proof, just reasonable, solid evidence. When someone claims they can create jet fuel by mixing Kool-Aid and Pop-Rocks, that demands proof. When someone says that there is a book that is a record of ancient Hebrews who migrated to the Americas, that demands evidence, not proof. Those who would demand proof of the Book of Mormon are never going to find it, just as believers will never find proof that it is not an ancient record. What we will find is evidence, for or against its authenticity. Around the middle of the 20th century, a number of Mormons made a concerted effort to find the Book of Mormon in the archaeological record. Needless to say, they failed, with at least one of them seeing his faith collapse in the aftermath.

Dr. Peterson continues:

We don’t expect coercive proof of the kind found in mathematics (and virtually only in mathematics). We’re not counting on decisive, secular, public evidence to demonstrate Mormonism true “beyond reasonable doubt.” Probably by divine design, such evidence isn’t available to us. Instead, we’re here for testing in what specialists call “decision making under uncertainty.” Confident conviction, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach, comes through a personal, individual witness from the Spirit, not by sifting through academic arguments.

But this isn’t to say that no public case can be made, or that no secular evidence exists. And it’s certainly not to say that believers must forsake reason in order to have faith.

Dr. Peterson and others have referred on occasion to an “evidentiary stalemate,” meaning that there is sufficient evidence to support the Book of Mormon’s claims to antiquity, and equal evidence to the contrary. Thus, as he says, readers must engage in “decision making under uncertainty,” which is an ideal place from which to exercise faith and seek answers from God.

The apologetic effort, then, isn’t to provide “a handy cluster of arguments exists, let alone a single all-powerful world-conquering proof, that would compel unbelieving scholars to convert if only they paid sufficient attention.”

Rather, what we’ve sought to do over decades (with, in my admittedly biased opinion, considerable success) is to advocate and defend the claims of the Restoration by means of the patient, painstaking accumulation of often fairly small and specific arguments.

I could argue with his claims of “considerable success,” but then that’s in the eye of the beholder. But the point is that, when it became clear that–to steal a phrase–the Book of Mormon wasn’t to be found in Mesoamerica, the focus changed to finding Mesoamerica within the pages of the Book of Mormon. In other words, Mormon apologists (for want of a better word) began looking for ways that the content of the Book of Mormon fits in with what we know of ancient Mesoamerica. A lot of people have done some interesting work, from Jack Welch’s work with chiasmus to my friend Brant Brant Gardner’s six-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon to John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.

Where the debate lies, in my opinion, is what all that effort has produced. Again from Dr. Peterson:

Taken individually, many such arguments and observations may seem insignificant. It’s only when they’re seen to be meaningful parts of a larger picture that, we hope, they’ll be recognized as important indicators and clues.

A comparison might help: Consider a painting. Just about any painting will serve the purpose here, but 19th-century French “pointillism” provides perhaps the most obvious illustrations, and Georges Seurat’s 1886-1888 “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” offers an exceptionally good example. If you examine it up close, you’ll see only meaningless daubs of colored paint. Only when you step back and see the pattern formed by hundreds and hundreds of such applications of color can you begin to understand what the overall painting is about.

This is as good an explanation of current apologetic approaches as I’ve heard, but there’s a fundamental problem. The work focuses on the tiny points and “daubs” of possible correlation. Once you “step back and see the pattern,” you see that the big picture doesn’t match at all. To extend Dan’s analogy a little, when you look very closely at a photo or painting reproduced in a newspaper, you see that it is actually made of up tiny dots of varying shades and intensities. Seen up close, it’s difficult to distinguish between Seurat’s “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” and, say, a panel from Calvin and Hobbes. A careful study of the two would reveal common colors, placement of dots, and so on, but the big picture doesn’t match. But you would never know it as long as you focused only on the small “points of convergence,” as John Clark has called them.

That’s the problem with Mormon apologetics. Much as I appreciate and admire the work Brant Gardner has done to compile all the “Mesoamericanisms” he finds in the Book of Mormon, it still doesn’t add up to a civilization of transplanted Hebrews in the Americas; indeed, the civilizations that existed before and after the time the Nephites were supposed to lived show no appreciable change in culture or technology resulting from any interaction with proto-Christian Israelites. As anthropologist Michael Coe put it:

To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He’s tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren’t all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there’s nothing new under the sun.

So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he’s a very serious, bright guy. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t really buy more than a part of this. I don’t really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what’s said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That’s one way of doing it — to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this — but there’s no actors. That’s the problem.

I’ve written before that a close examination of the small points and details does add up to a clear big picture: the Book of Mormon is pretty much what you would expect from an early 19th-century American myth about the origins of the Native Americans, the mound builders, in particular. Very few scholars have spent a lot of time explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon in mound-builder mythology, but that’s because most historians familiar with the early 1800s find the connections so clear as to be obvious. Mormon history scholar Dan Vogel has spelled it out pretty clearly in his book, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, which is fortunately available at no cost on the Internet.

Dan lists what he considers to be “impressive” cumulative evidence of the Book of Mormon, but for me, none of it is remotely as compelling as the evidence of its nineteenth-century origins.


What’s Eating Jeffrey Holland?

February 18, 2015

A lot of people have been talking about Jeffrey Holland’s broadcast, “An Evening with a General Authority.” Much has been said about the content, but I am going to talk about the tone, which I found a little unsettling. I’m sure some would say, “The guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Nephi 16:2). But that’s not really it.

I’ve always liked Jeffrey Holland since my time at Brigham Young University, when he was the university’s president. I met him once during that time when I was working in the Reading/Writing Center in the Jesse Knight Building. A water pipe had burst in the ceiling above the area in which I was assigned to work, so I was sitting there studying and keeping watch over a bank of computers that were drying in front of fans. He came in to inspect the damage, and I had a brief but cordial conversation with him, not just about the damage to the computers but also about my studies and plans for the future. I enjoyed what was casually referred to as “The Pat and Jeff Show,” a joint devotional he and his wife would give at the beginning of every semester. I recall Sister Holland’s horror when the off-campus paper, The Student Review, followed her at a supermarket and published the contents of her grocery cart, which included a pint of coffee ice cream. I liked both of them because they seemed down to earth and quite comfortable being human, and they clearly cared about the student body. He spoke at my commencement when I received my bachelor’s degree and then a few years later, he spoke as an apostle at the commencement when I received my master’s degree. Over the years I’ve enjoyed the conference talks he has given as an apostle, as he is clearly well-read and always came across as thoughtful and caring.

I was really taken aback in 2009 when he gave a talk called “Safety for the Soul,” in which his intent appeared to be to deliver a stirring testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon. Let me quote from his talk:

May I refer to a modern “last days” testimony? When Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum started for Carthage to face what they knew would be an imminent martyrdom, Hyrum read these words to comfort the heart of his brother:

“Thou hast been faithful; wherefore … thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.

“And now I, Moroni, bid farewell … until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ.” 7

A few short verses from the 12th chapter of Ether in the Book of Mormon. Before closing the book, Hyrum turned down the corner of the page from which he had read, marking it as part of the everlasting testimony for which these two brothers were about to die. I hold in my hand that book, the very copy from which Hyrum read, the same corner of the page turned down, still visible. Later, when actually incarcerated in the jail, Joseph the Prophet turned to the guards who held him captive and bore a powerful testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Shortly thereafter pistol and ball would take the lives of these two testators.

As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?

The implication is clear and need not be stated: People who know they are at death’s door do not tend to reiterate their testimony of something they know is a fraud. Posing such a rhetorical question would have been clear and direct. Curiously, however, Elder Holland doesn’t leave the implication unsaid.

Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. (Emphasis in original)

It seems that he doesn’t trust his audience to understand his point. And to further underline, his voice rises in passion and what I can only describe as a mixture of anger, defensiveness, and contempt for critics:

For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather, who said simply enough, “No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.”

I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: “a stone of stumbling, … a rock of offence,” a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work. Witnesses, even witnesses who were for a time hostile to Joseph, testified to their death that they had seen an angel and had handled the plates. “They have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man,” they declared. “Wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.” (Emphasis in original)

I thought this was downright strange and still do. He has abandoned bearing a positive testimony and instead has turned an accusing and angry eye to those who would dare question the book’s divinity. It’s no longer the book he is defending, but instead he is directly berating “anyone [who] is foolish enough or misled to reject” the Book of Mormon. He almost taunts those who have left the church for “crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit,” as if they were snakes or lizards furtively slithering their way to the door of the church. He leaves no question in his listeners’ minds: there are no legitimate grounds for disbelieving the Book of Mormon. Those who disbelieve, he tells us, are pathetic, foolish, misled, incapable of recognizing the book’s “literary and Semitic complexity” (OK, that made me chuckle), offended, deceived, and worse even than those who were hostile to Joseph Smith in his lifetime.

I know a lot of people who found Elder Holland’s remarks offensive and divisive. For me, the words and the tone were mystifying. They came across not as forceful and determined, as I’m sure he intended, but rather defensive and more than a little angry and contemptuous. I really didn’t know what to make of it.

Then I saw him later in an interview with the BBC in 2012, when at first he was pretty evasive when asked about the obvious mistranslation of the Egyptian papyri and Joseph Smith’s criminal record. His answers were about what I expected. As far as the Book of Abraham, he said, “All I’m saying is that what got translated, got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that I do not understand and don’t claim to know and know no Egyptian.” That’s pretty much the only honest response that can be made, given the obvious mistranslations. When asked about Smith’s conviction for fraud (“juggling” and “glass-looking”), he said, “I have no idea. … There’s a good deal of difficulty in the early frontier life in America, but that’s an incidental matter to the character and integrity of the man.” This is just weird: He says he doesn’t know anything about such a conviction (somehow I doubt that) and then in the same breath says a conviction for fraud is a trivial matter and doesn’t have anything to do with Smith’s character. Really?

After my friend Jeff Ricks explained to the interviewer about the nature of the penalties involved in the temple endowment before 1990, the interviewer asked Holland a really blunt question:

As a Mormon, in the temple, I’ve been told [Mitt Romney] would have sworn an oath to say that he would not pass on what happens in the temple, lest he slit his throat. Is that true?

The truthful answer to this is, “Yes.” Mitt Romney received his endowment in the 1960s and would have repeated the ceremony many times, each time miming the slitting of his throat and saying, “I covenant that I will never reveal” the signs and tokens of the temple. “Rather than do so, I would suffer my life to be taken.” I did this countless times myself. Knowing this, I wondered how Holland would reply. Would he simply acknowledge it and move on, or would he say something about how Mormons don’t talk about sacred matters in public? What he said was startling.

That’s not true. That’s not true. We do not have penalties in the temple.

I wasn’t expecting that. The first two sentences are simply false, full stop. The third sentence is true in a Clintonesque (define the word “is”) sense, but is a misleading answer to the question posed. The look on Holland’s face tells me he has suddenly realized that he’s dealing with someone who knows a little more than the average reporter about the Mormon church. The interviewer is prepared enough to know Holland is not telling the truth.

You used to [have penalties in the temple].

Holland finally gives up:

We used to.

He goes on to say that this was more a matter of a member like Mitt Romney not telling anyone about “his personal pledge to God” than it is about keeping the temple ceremony secret, even though the endowment itself refers to these pledges as “obligation[s] of secrecy.” Holland continues by saying that the Strengthening the Church Membership Committee is designed to “protect predatory practices of polygamist groups … principally.” I’m fairly certain he knows the committee does much more than that. To be fair, when asked the same question, church PR spokesperson Michael Purdy flatly denied knowing anything about the committee before finally owning up to it.

But what struck me the most was Holland’s response when the interviewer said that some former members describe the church as a cult, like Scientology, only smarter.

We’re not a cult. I’m not an idiot. You know, I’ve read a couple of books and I’ve been to a pretty good school, and I have chosen to be in this church because of the faith that I feel and the inspiration that comes. … We are 14 million and growing, and I’d like to think that your respect for me would be enough to know that this man doesn’t seem like a dodo.

At that moment the earlier anger and defensiveness about the Book of Mormon made sense. These words do not sound like the words of someone who is confident in his faith. Rather, they sound like something you would say if it was vitally important for you to defend something, but, somewhere deep inside, you have doubts about the thing you’re defending. It reminds of me a conversation I had several years ago with my wife’s sister, who is a heavy smoker. We were watching an old movie starring Judy Holliday. My sister-in-law wondered what had become of Ms. Holliday. I mentioned that Ms. Holliday, a comedic actress in the 1950s, had died from lung cancer at an early age. My sister-in-law said, “How could she have gotten lung cancer?” Without thinking, I said, “Well, she was a pretty heavy smoker.”

My sister-in-law had the same expression on her face and tone of voice as Holland’s as she angrily said, “There’s no proof that smoking causes lung cancer! Whoever says so is lying!” Her rant went on for a couple of minutes, and it was eerily similar to Holland’s “defense” of the spiritual truths of Mormonism.

When people talk like that, it makes me think that, somewhere deep inside, they are afraid they are dead wrong, so they make up for it with emotion and forcefulness. I am not suggesting that Jeffrey Holland is going through a crisis of faith. What I am saying is that the effect of his words and tone is quite different than what I think he intends.

He is trying to look firm and steadfast and impassioned. But it comes across as weak and pathetic to me, but I’m sure some people out there found it a stirring apologia.


2014 Brodie Awards

February 10, 2015

Just a quick note that I’ve been nominated for a couple of Brodie awards for essays that appeared on this blog.

I’m honored that someone thinks that highly of my small contributions to the discussion around Mormonism. I confess that it’s endlessly fascinating to me, and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be able to “leave it alone.” But then it wouldn’t make sense to abandon something I find so interesting, would it?

Anyway, check out the other nominations at Main Street Plaza, and if you are so inclined, vote for my essays or anyone else’s you like. I am most proud that my book, Heaven Up Here, won the award in 2011 for “Best Book-Length Memoirs.”


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